Do you think you have a “bad” back? Or a bad knee, hip or shoulder? You don’t. Please, can we stop this badness?
When I first received the diagnosis of a labral tear with a congenital hip socket abnormality two and a half years ago, the chiropractor who delivered the news told me that I had a “defect.” I felt as if he’d punched me. Up until then, we’d had a fine relationship. He often talked about his daughter and her love life and college plans, his dysfunctional homeowners’ association, his hobbies. But I was in pain, and I had been for a long time, and he added to it.
Dr. So-and-So had suspected that I had a torn labrum (cartilage in the hip socket) after reviewing the X-ray that I had requested when the pain he’d been treating around my sacroiliac joint went off the charts during a yoga teacher training course in April 2015. A subsequent MRI confirmed the diagnosis and also revealed an impingement (misshapen femoral head), which likely caused or, at the very least, exacerbated the tear. I knew that he was just the messenger, but I also knew what treatment for a torn labrum potentially meant for my fledgling teaching career: significant derailment. Granted, this was not news of a terminal illness, and I managed the condition for more than two years before having surgery.
But “defect”? What I heard and internalized was: “You are defective. Broken. Bad. Imperfect. Sullied. Flawed. A fraud. No good. Bye-bye, yoga. Try something else.”
I know he didn’t mean any ill will, and if I’d had more of my wits about me, I would have had an adult conversation with him about his poor choice of words. But I was mildly deranged, and I couldn’t focus on semantics. Besides, he was reading off the radiologist’s report, which indeed noted a “defect.” A friend later suggested that I call it a “quirk,” a more neutral term that I liked and employed when describing the situation to others. The word has a jocular connotation, as if referring to an eccentric aunt or, say, comedian Minnie Pearl, with her ubiquitous straw hat, adorned with fake flowers and a dangling price tag. “HowDEE!”
So it breaks my heart when students tell me they have a bad back, a bad hip, or a bad anything. No! No, no, nooooo!!! I suggest to them that the aching body part just wants some love and compassion. Pain, at the very least, is information, and the body part that’s talking to you just wants your attention, like a stroppy toddler. How do you feel if and when you call part of yourself bad? Imagine that your aching body part is a beloved in pain. Would you call her bad? People who are considered bad are shunned. Sidelined. Tossed out. Punished. Ignored. Put in a corner. (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”) Is that how you would want a suffering loved one ~ or any living creature ~ to be treated? To have their pain heaped with pain?
I’m not ignoring the evil in the world, which is readily on display, and I’m not talking about the acute pain that comes with, say, a god-forbid broken leg or heart attack and needs immediate attention. This “bad” attitude toward pain in chronic conditions is more insidious. It creates separation. To label something “bad” sets up an Us vs. Them mentality, a fight. It is full of fear and the judgment of Otherness. And fear and judgment lead to war. The bad thing becomes an object to be repelled, denied, partitioned, conquered. I know about the fear behind my own pain. But I also think that if we don’t learn to deal with our fears and pains in healthier ways, we’ll keep going to war ~ against ourselves, and others. We’ll keep shredding our shared humanity. Haven’t we had enough war?
The ways we talk to ourselves and about ourselves have repercussions. If everything is energy, a thought is a charged thing. Thoughts take the form of words, which have meanings, and words and thoughts get tangled up in feelings. We act from feelings, some of which are painful. If the results are violent and create more pain for ourselves and others, perhaps we need new dialogues, new ways for dealing with and talking about pain that don’t end in inner and outer wars. We need to stop the badness. We need to create healthy spaces ~ healthy forms of separation ~ in which to have conversations with our ailing body parts, to ask them what they need. Otherwise, the cycles of trauma will be perpetuated and perpetrated endlessly.
Two things that helped me reshape my attitude toward my hip and pain in general are my writing practice and my Purna Yoga practice. I’ve learned how to listen to my little and large aches and pains, and how to treat them. In writing, I can purge my pain onto a neutral piece of paper and release some of the charge around it. I can excavate some of the many stories, true and untrue, around an injury and my attitudes about my body in a safe way, a way that no one else gets to judge.* By objectifying my stories, I can face them, own them, transform and release them. I can choose my own words and write new endings. This is a profound form of healing, one that doesn’t necessarily mean that pain will completely disappear. I’ve never been under any illusion that I’ll have a life free of pain, but I clearly needed better skills to deal with it. Who doesn’t?
*Sidebar, speaking of judgment: When I told Dr. So-and-So that I was not going to immediately follow his recommendation for surgery, his whole demeanor toward me changed dramatically. It’s hard to put his reaction into words, but I felt as if he slammed a bank-vault door shut between us, and I’d been visiting him regularly for a few years. His body language instantly changed, and he went from being collegial to borderline petulant. He went from being a partner in my wellness to an adversary, asking almost with an eyeroll, “Why would you not want surgery?” (That’s a topic for another blog post.) What I felt him say was: “How dare you question and defy me!” I never went back to him. It’s possible that I misread his reaction, and I regret not having a better conversation with him. I appreciate that he correctly guessed my condition and helped me get a diagnosis. But I’ve also learned to trust my instincts.
Through my Purna Yoga practice, I was able to radically adapt my asana to my shifting needs and abilities. I studied in my body what hurt and what did not. I became much more gentle with myself and spent more time in restorative poses, which my nervous system has needed for a long time anyway. I begn to stop fighting my body. Through the lifestyle component of our practice, I began taking supplements to support the bone and cartilage situation. When I was very, very good, I ate an anti-inflammatory, ayurvedically appropriate diet. Our Heartfull Meditation, as developed by Savitri, was especially dear in helping me to get quiet and clear inside and listen to my inner voice for guidance.
About a week before my surgery, I got trained on how to use the crutches I’d need for a few weeks afterward. To navigate steps, the physical therapist told me, “Go up with the good leg and down with the bad.” Ack! I wanted to yelp: “They’re both good! My poor right leg never did anything to anyone. It’s just suffering.” I didn’t correct him. I should have. (Part of my endless growth through this experience has been learning how to be my best health-care advocate and questioning authority figures, as you might have surmised by now. But that’s also a topic for another blog post.) Instead, I changed “bad” to “affected,” and repeated the instructions back to him with my own words.
On the morning of the surgery, an extremely kind pre-op nurse helped set me up with a fancy purple gown, an IV, heart monitor pads, a few pain pills for good measure with the first water I’d had in nine hours and, best of all, socks. Good gracious, hospitals are cold. “Okay, let me have your good leg,” she said, as she slipped a sock over my left foot, “and …” ~ bless her heart, she caught herself ~ “… well, they’re both good, but … .” She didn’t finish her sentence.
The nurse gave me a purple marker and told me to initial my hip. I resisted the urge to write “THIS ONE!” surrounded by arrows and instead simply wrote “LW,” with a heart. I figured the heart would make my surgeon smile, and it represented the attitude that I’d cultivated about the whole ordeal.
One week after arthroscopic surgery, I’m on the road to a good recovery, with physical therapy visits scheduled for several weeks. My homework includes riding a stationary bike for 20 minutes twice a day, and several rounds of isometric exercises. To that I will add having a conversation with my therapist about what a good leg is.